The terrorist attacks committed by ISIS on November 13 in Paris have provoked a wave of international solidarity toward the victims and the French people. However, the defenders of ethical impartiality have swiftly come out to criticize those who only get touched by a tragedy taking place in Paris, while looking the other way vis-à-vis similar atrocities committed in the streets of Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut or Baghdad.
Indeed, the advocates of impartiality – who, by the way, risk revealing themselves as opportunistic if they have not condemned in the past every man-made humanitarian tragedy – uphold the universality of human rights as a basis for criticizing those who sympathize with the killing of only one kind of people. If human dignity is not quantifiable, as the Kantian maxim goes, then neither the number nor the condition of the victims should be relevant to inspire sympathy for the victims of atrocities, wherever the killings may take place. In this the advocate of ethical impartiality is right.
Yet, the analysis remains incomplete if the debate on the terrorist phenomenon ends with the human rights and universal dignity discourse. This is because there is also an international security angle at stake that cannot be ignored.
The fact that for the fifth time in the present century – after New York and Washington (2001), Madrid (2004), London (2005), and Boston (2013) – a terrorist group has managed to perpetrate attacks in the heart of developed countries who belong to the military pact of the undefeated NATO, adds a sensation of insecurity to the spontaneous feelings of sympathy toward those who have lost their lives.
This additional international security dimension refers us to a discussion that is usually absent in the human rights discourse: The debate on the (moral and legal) right to resort to war, known as jus ad bellum in the just war tradition. Among the just causes to resort to war included in that tradition is the right to self-defense, which has been invoked recently by France to justify its counter-attack on the Islamic State. In that way, it seems clear enough that the global threat of ISIS cannot be addressed solely as a law-enforcement issue anymore.
At the same time, human rights also find their place among the just causes for war, if they are being breached at a massive scale and only can be upheld through the use of force in a humanitarian intervention to exert the responsibility to protect.
But the just war discourse does not end after determining a just cause for war, for it also requires a rightful intention, legitimate authority, a last resort nature and proportionality between the possible costs and benefits of resorting to the use of force. This last criterion of proportionality tries to include bona fide judgment calculations about the impact war will have on international security. It would be desirable that the permanent members of the UN Security Council – all of which are currently embarked more or less directly in the fight against ISIS – include such calculation of reasonable prospects of success in their response against this new threat to international security and to human rights.